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EU: Candidates Chafe Under Accession Uncertainty

EU foreign ministers met their colleagues from the 12 candidate countries in Luxembourg yesterday (Wednesday). The meetings were intended to highlight achievements of the Portuguese term of the rotating EU presidency, but instead left many of the candidates unsure about what to expect when France takes over the presidency next month (July 1).

Luxembourg, 15 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Technically, the Portuguese EU presidency, lasting from January through June, was an unqualified success.

The six first-wave candidates for EU membership -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, and Cyprus -- finally opened negotiations on most areas, or chapters, of EU legislation to be negotiated before accession. The six second-wave countries -- Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania, and Slovakia -- got their negotiations under way in March, and even managed to close a few of the 31 chapters.

First-wave countries have now officially opened talks on the 29 chapters that can be broached at this stage. The final two chapters -- institutions, and miscellaneous issues -- can only be tackled shortly before the actual accession of candidates to the EU. First-wavers progress on closing chapters has also been impressive -- Cyprus has now closed 16 chapters, the Czech Republic and Estonia 13, Slovenia 12, and Poland and Hungary 11.

Yet they have only now opened talks on two of the most controversial areas. Talks on the free movement of people opened three weeks ago (May 26), and talks on agriculture opened yesterday.

Both those areas present particular problems for the EU. The prospect that citizens of new EU members could live and work anywhere within the EU frightens Germany and Austria, who fear an influx of immigrant workers. Those two countries are demanding a lengthy transition period during which free movement of people would not apply to new members -- something the candidates strongly resist.

Agricultural policy is another stumbling block. Most current EU member states want to deny new members the full benefits of their generous farm subsidies, arguing that subsidizing new members' farmers would be too expensive for EU taxpayers. This, too, is resisted by all candidates, who demand equal treatment.

The uncertainty over the contentious chapters has spilled over to the EU's attitudes towards enlargement. Leading candidates have for some time accused the EU of dragging its feet. First-wave candidates demand fixed accession dates by the end of the year, as promised earlier by the European Commission. This is something EU member governments seem not willing to do. Instead, the forthcoming French presidency appears to offer something far less appealing -- a comprehensive list of problems faced by each candidate.

This week (Tuesday), EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen defined the new proposals as follows.

"We [the Commission] support fully the French view to prepare a kind of a 'road map' that would define the remaining problems and perhaps even more, would define the way of how we solve them. I also completely support the French view that we in the next semester [presidency] must start to negotiate some chapters already in substance, so that the more technical period in negotiations will be finished."

Verheugen clearly indicated the need for political decisions to supplement the technical nature of the talks so far. So far EU member governments have not reluctant to make those decisions.

A number of leading candidates have complained that the EU positions offered to them on both the free movement of people and agriculture chapters are not sufficient. Important issues have not been addressed, they say, and thus substantive talks on the chapters cannot begin.

It is now acknowledged even within the EU that substantive issues under both chapters will not be tackled before the end of the French presidency. This makes the idea of "road maps," as opposed to target dates, even less appealing to leading candidates.

Yesterday, all first-wave countries' foreign ministers demanded greater clarity from the EU. Behind the scenes, there is even talk of a reassessment of accession strategies if the EU should prove unable to offer clear progress by the end of the year.

Such a reassessment could be a blessing in disguise for some second-wave countries that wish to catch up with the first wave. Leading among them is Slovakia. Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said yesterday that his country continues to firmly support the EU policy of treating candidates according to individual merit. He did appear, however, to stress the wider need for the Visegrad four -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia itself -- to be treated as a group.

"We would like to catch up with...our neighbors, because I think it is in the interests not only of Slovakia, but also the region of Central Europe and the European Union as a whole to have [a] homogeneous Central European region, and for that purpose Slovakia really wants to be admitted to the EU at approximately the same time as our other three neighbors of the Visegrad group."

Kukan said that given sufficient progress, Slovakia would be ready to close nearly as many chapters under the French presidency as the Czech Republic has closed now. Presently, Slovakia has closed talks on 6 chapters, followed in the second wave by Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania on 5, and Bulgaria on 4.